Those aren’t the only two candidates, but they do dominate the debate — which got new life this week when the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship, giving James his fourth title.
We asked our ESPN Forecast panel a series of questions to get at the heart of the GOAT debate.
Here are the results of our ESPN Forecast poll:
Where LeBron holds the advantage
In our recent All-Time NBArank, Jordan held a decisive edge over LeBron as the No. 1 player in NBA history.
But that doesn’t mean the argument is entirely one-sided, nor does it make the opinion unanimous.
For three of our questions this week, the panel favored LeBron:
Which is more true?
We asked whether Jordan or James played in a more difficult era, and this is one category where our voters leaned LeBron’s way.
Almost half of the voters said that the difference in eras wasn’t that important. But overall, the voters said LeBron has had a tougher road.
Who is the greater teammate?
Given that LeBron’s latest championship came alongside Davis — a first-team All-NBA and All-Defensive big man — we asked voters to compare AD to Jordan’s greatest teammate, Scottie Pippen.
This isn’t the last word on whose supporting cast was stronger. But it does serve as a snapshot of how big a boost the two GOAT candidates got from two key contributors. In our panel’s view, Jordan had a better sidekick than James — for LeBron’s fourth title, at least.
Which player has accomplished more overall?
LeBron James: 62%
Michael Jordan: 38%
Here’s a key question about what might ultimately give LeBron the edge in the GOAT debate, even if most of our panel isn’t quite ready to crown him yet.
This is where the power of LeBron’s longevity as a player and his remarkable feat of making 10 NBA Finals (including nine of the past 10) with three different franchises is most visible.
Where MJ holds the advantage
For most of our panel, Michael is still the man. That was evident in most of the questions where we asked the panel to compare the players head-to-head.
Here are the receipts:
Which is the greater accomplishment?
Six NBA titles: 72%
10 NBA Finals: 28%
Jordan’s 6-0 record in the NBA Finals provides the edge here, given that James has appeared in 10 Finals but won only four times.
Which is the greater accomplishment?
Same question, different angle. The results were closer but still favored Jordan.
Which player has had a higher peak?
Michael Jordan: 82%
LeBron James: 18%
One reason NBA fans and our panel have difficulty putting anyone ahead of Jordan is that his ability to rise to any occasion seems unmatched.
That was clear when we asked which player had reached greater heights.
And here is the big question, for each player:
Michael Jordan is …
The greatest player of all time: 62%
The second-greatest player of all time: 32%
An all-time top-five player: 6%
LeBron James is …
The greatest player of all time: 23%
The second-greatest player of all time: 55%
An all-time top-five player: 21%
While these are the top two players of all time for the majority of our panel, we asked for other nominees. The five other GOAT candidates mentioned most often were, in order, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
What the future holds for LeBron
LeBron just received his fourth Finals MVP award and is still near his peak, remarkable for a player approaching age 36. That means the GOAT debate is far from done, especially with LeBron’s Lakers favored to repeat.
So we asked our panel two key questions:
How many titles will LeBron have when his career ends?
Average: 4.95 titles.
How many NBA titles does LeBron need to pass Jordan as the greatest player of all time?
Three (he was already the GOAT): 15%
Four (this title did it): 15%
Five (one more will do it): 11%
Six (matching MJ will do it): 28%
Seven (passing MJ will do it): 15%
LeBron cannot pass MJ: 17%
Total of 3-6 NBA titles: 69%
Our panel does, on the whole, expect LeBron to win another title. But that fifth title might not be enough to tip the scales in his favor, at least in the current view of our panel.
But as these results show, if LeBron can combine a sixth NBA title with his other accomplishments, we might have a new consensus GOAT.